Benedict XVI. As with the Thane of Cawdor, nothing in his reign became him like the leaving it.
Hardly had the Pope announced his impending retirement than the news media, so savage toward politicians and princesses, began to genuflect before this monarch of the Mother Church. Many gushed over his tweets. Some major broadcast network programs chose priests and priests alone to comment. It's rather as if the Chinese premier were planning to step down, and news media chose a low-ranking member of the Central Committee to assess his superior's performance.
Online, ABC News ran a barf-worthy puff piece titled, "Pope Benedict XVI: 6 Surprising Facts." Fact No. 1: He's a cat lover.
It gets worse. There's a fashion entry about his shoes. But let's be fair: that was the day of the surprise announcement. Since then the media have turned serious. Serious, that is, about handicapping the race for a successor.
Well, here are some largely ignored or discounted facts about Pope Benedict XVI that any Cardinal with a conscience should take into account when considering a new pontiff.
2. His reactionary theology, more suited to medieval times than the 21st Century, made life harder for women and gays. In the U.S., he excommunicated a priest for having the temerity to suggest that women be ordained. Even now, the Vatican is leading a charge in the courts to prevent women from gaining health insurance coverage for contraception. In developing countries, where the Catholic Church is growing fastest, the consequences have been far worse. (See Item 5.)
3. He took the crushing of dissent to absurd lengths. While serving as Cardinal Ratzinger under John Paul II, he made a name for himself by suppressing Catholic proponents of "liberation theology." As Pope he continued the work of "God's Rottweiler", overseeing a Vatican that has impugned the reputation of American nuns as "radical feminists," and even attacked the Girl Scouts.
4. On "discovering" that the Church is riddled with bishops who had covered up child-rape and molestation by priests, he failed to clean house. Instead, he allowed his No. 2 to try to shift the blame to gays. The pope himself tried blaming "society." His subsequent reactions were a series of halfhearted, incomplete attempts at reform and recompense. Sure, he apologized, but he also promoted, for example, Timothy Dolan to be Cardinal of New York. That, despite Dolan's record of paying off pedophiles to quietly depart the priesthood. Doesn't the law -- not to mention morality -- require a person who knows of child-abuse to report it to the authorities?<
5. The worst and least mentioned of Pope Benedict's initiatives is surely this: the anti-condom campaign in Africa. Shortly after becoming Pope, he told bishops from South Africa that condoms were unacceptable in the fight against AIDS. Subsequently, the Vatican led a disinformation campaign across Africa aimed at persuading millions of vulnerable people that condoms actually threatened their health, not to mention their eternal souls. The Pope himself, on a visit to West Africa, sparked outrage when he claimed that condoms aggravate the AIDS epidemic. He later wavered, writing that condoms would be acceptable for male prostitutes as a step to prevent infection. But the Vatican quickly retreated to its uncompromising stance. We cannot know with accuracy how many people would have been spared the ravages of AIDS if not for this senseless policy. Considering that the Catholic Church is predominant in Africa and that the AIDS epidemic kills about 2 million people a year in sub-Saharan Africa and has left nearly 15 million children orphaned, the number of needless victims is unquestionably vast. However sincere the theology, this is a crime against humanity.
Will anything change with the election of a new pope? Considering that this pope and his predecessor have appointed the Cardinals who will serve as electors, the odds seem poor. But hope springs eternal. Let's not forget that Mikhail Gorbachev came to office against similar odds. If the Church and the world are fortunate, perhaps the winter of papal resignation will be followed by a spring of reform.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization with which he may be affiliated.